US reporter, immigration activist’s movie premiers in Manila to applause

By Teresa Cerojano, AP

MANILA, Philippines–An autobiographical documentary by one of America’s best known immigrants living in the U.S. illegally has opened an independent film festival in his home country of the Philippines to applause, laughter and tears.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and now immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas’ mother received a certificate of recognition on his behalf at the 10th Cinemalaya film festival in Manila on Friday night.

“It’s my third time to watch it, but I still can’t stop myself from crying,” said Emelie Salinas, Vargas’ 56-year-old mother, who came with her two other children and relatives.

“Documented” was written, directed and produced by Vargas, who has worked for The Huffington Post, San Francisco Chronicle and Philadelphia Daily News, and was part of a Washington Post team that won a Pulitzer in 2008 for its report on the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings.

The 90-minute film tells of Vargas’ 1993 journey to America as a 12-year-old unaccompanied immigrant to join his grandparents, and his painful 21-year separation from his mother.

In 2011, after wrestling with fear, he decided to come out with his secret and to campaign for a citizenship path for more than 11 million other “undocumented” immigrants, 1.3 million of whom are Asians. Hundreds of thousands of them were brought to America as children, and like Vargas are trapped in their illegal status.

Vargas, 33, founded the campaign “Define American,” speaking all over the United States on the plight of immigrants who entered the country illegally, and testifying at a U.S. congressional hearing last year on immigration reform.

Last month, he was detained by Border Patrol agents at McAllen airport in Texas, but was released several hours later because he was not considered a security threat. The incident was widely reported by media and Vargas’ supporters rallied for his release.

“Here in America, where people like me are called illegal, this film is an act of civil disobedience,” Vargas said in a taped message played before the Manila premier of his film at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

He said that because he did not have the proper documents, he could not join the audience in Manila, which included his family, which he has not seen for 21 years. But the premier of his movie at the festival, he added, “proves the power of film” because “movies travel in all languages, bridging cultures … and people.”

Filipino netizens have been tweeting kudos to Vargas, with one describing the film as “enlightening, entertaining, heartbreaking.”

Vargas’ sister Czarina said she was happy about the audience’s positive reaction to the film.

“It is overwhelming that they liked the movie,” said Czarina, a 23-year-old nurse. “It is such an uncomfortable issue, but I am so thankful that they appreciated it and I did not see any negative reactions from the people.”